'For a greenkeeper St Andrews is the ultimate'
The first thing you notice when you pitch up by the R&A clubhouse at St Andrews is the queue.
The line of single golfers at the starter’s pavilion has been in place since the early hours of the morning and they are there more in hope than expectation.
They’re hoping to snatch a precious spot, with a willing group that has a space, to play the famous Old Course.
If people are prepared to hunker down for hours to play on golf’s most famous piece of turf, imagine what it’s like to be the man charged with keeping it looking great.
Gordon McKie has been the course manager for the Old for 11 years, having served his apprenticeship on the Eden and New.
He’s steered a path through Open Championships, Dunhill Links Championships, Women’s British Opens and prepared a course that’s been played by hundreds of thousands of golfers in his time there.
We asked the greenkeeping veteran what it takes to keep the hallowed grass in tip-top shape…
You’re the latest in a line of Old Course greenkeepers that starts with Old Tom Morris. What’s that like?
For a greenkeeper, and particularly a links greenkeeper, it is the ultimate. I was reminded when I first took over the role that ‘you are only the 9th greenkeeper since Old Tom to look after this place’.
That just shows you how many greenkeepers have done it. So to be doing it on a daily basis is like a boyhood dream.
You get into greenkeeping, you read the books, and it is all about Old Tom. He is the godfather of greenkeeping. He’s the guy we look up to and we look back and see what he did – particularly here.
Some of the practices he put into place all those years ago, we still try to maintain those in the philosophy of how we manage. That’s not only the Old Course but all the courses.
What’s your approach to working on the Old Course?
It’s a very busy golf course and it is held in such high esteem by not only the local people in the community in St Andrews but worldwide.
For everyone who comes here, it’s a bucket list golf course and they’ve saved up for months and even years to come and play this course.
But it’s 18 holes of golf and grass like any other golf course. It’s a special place and I’m very lucky and fortunate to work in a place like St Andrews.
Do you have to keep the heritage and history of the course in your mind?
You know the world’s eyes are always watching you. You are very conscious of what you are doing, when and how you are doing it.
We try and present the golf course every single day as if it was in championship condition. That’s what everyone who comes here is expecting. They have seen it on TV and they want the same conditions the pros get.
It’s a challenge to look after but it is a good privilege.
There are 50,000 rounds played on the Old every year. That’s an awful lot of traffic…
Probably the biggest comment we get is people can’t believe the condition the course is in given the amount of people who play it – and that’s only six days a week. We’re closed on Sundays. We use Sundays for maintenance.
We are very lucky that we get the resources to put into the course.
The philosophy is that everything we do on the greens – which is the number one area on a course – we do all over the place.
We spend a lot of time on areas off greens, on surrounds and walkways and areas where there is heavy traffic to try and make them as good.
You’ve got to try and apply resources to allow them to do that. It’s still a challenge – with the divots, the double greens and the nature of the undulations. You’ve got a lot more areas in the fairway where the ball will gather.
We’ve got a big team that can help us do that and we’re lucky we have got everything that is required to help us maintain the golf course in top class condition.
How big is that team?
There are 14 of us full-time and through the summer we take on nine seasonal interns.
That’s made up of six full-time guys and three part-time. We’ve got semi-retired guys that come back and work for four hours (at a time), which is great and that helps us rake bunkers, helps with divoting and we train them up to do a bit of machinery. That helps us get done what we need to with the time constraints we have.
The first tee time is 6.30am (during the summer) so we need a lot of staff to get that course set up ahead of golf.
You’ll be racing around in the morning…
We start at 5.15am and we always give ourselves an hour’s grace just to get ahead. Even then, by the time we get to 7 or 8, we are just starting to be caught up.
The thing with the Old Course is that because you have got double greens, you are effectively cutting two greens – not one. If you look round and say ‘I’ll catch that green on the way in’ you are going to swamped with golf.
That’s why we’ve got such large numbers. The area of our greens is probably three times the size of a normal golf club.
So you might say ‘he’s got 14 staff’ but that’s the reason. I have got three times the area to maintain ahead of golf.
You hand cut those greens as well…
It’s all about numbers and resources. We can’t hand cut the greens without having at least six people on it. With that six people we can do it in about two and a half hours and the guys double up on the big double greens.
They are very experienced.
You always find when you get new staff coming here, they might have cut greens, but you’ve got one of those big large double greens that might be 100 yards. You’ve got to try and keep it (the mower) in a straight line.
Sunlight is a huge thing. You try and cut the green when you are heading into the sunlight and you’ll get found out. There’s a lot of thinking you have to do to try and do a good job.
Does the way the Old Course is set up change when a top tournament comes to St Andrews? What does an average day entail for McKie and his team? Find out on the next page…